Robin Williams: In Memoriam

williams-coverThe great comedian and actor Robin Williams was found dead on Monday afternoon of an apparent suicide. The loss is an enormous one. The tributes have been many and appropriately so. I’d like mine to be relevant to the usual objects of discussion here. I trust you’ll not find it forced.

In the film Dead Poets Society, Williams brilliantly plays John Keating, an unorthodox teacher who rejects the strictures of the elite Welton Academy and implores his students to search for meaning in their lives. In a crucial scene, Williams tells his students that “we don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute, we read and write poetry because we are members of the human race.” He goes on to quote Walt Whitman’s “O Me! O Life!,” a poem that ends by speaking directly to its readers: “the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.” Williams repeats that great line again and then turns to his students to ask the telling question: “What will your verse be?”

But this powerful climax matters more when considered in context with what happens just prior. Take a look.

I am unalterably committed to data-driven analysis and investment. We are far too prone to make ideological mistakes and to make decisions based upon hunches and hopes rather than following the data wherever it leads. Perhaps Williams as Keating is too subjective in his views — too much “heart” and not enough “head.”

But Williams as Keating is precisely correct about the poetry graph of “J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D.” (am I being too geeky by appreciating that the fictional Dr. Pritchard’s “Preface” opens with a split infinitive?) To pick an easy example, managing risks and (especially) behaviors is exceedingly difficult. Even if (and when!) “the charts” are perfectly clear about what ought to be done, actually following through and doing it can be excruciatingly difficult.*

There is much more to our profession than data. As I frequently implore, data without interpretation is useless. And much of what we do requires both science and art, head and heart, analysis and interpretation.

We are prone to thinking that data can and surely will answer all our questions if we simply look hard enough. If only. And we are prone to thinking that if we simply channel our inner Spock and remove emotions from the proverbial equation, all will be well. But without emotions we simply can’t make decisions; we’re paralyzed.

Good investment management and good financial planning demand that we actively and aggressively manage ourselves and our clients as well as the money with which we are entrusted. Sadly, there’s no good chart and no easy answers for that — by J. Evans Pritchard or anyone else — as John Keating so eloquently demonstrated.

Robin Williams, RIP.

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* Ironically, we often (metaphorically, anyway) want to stand on the desk and salute “O Captain! My Captain!” and follow along after a charismatic leader rather than looking at the data and performing the requisite interpretive analysis ourselves.

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